A lot of the stories I loved most as a child involved doors. Aged about 4, I suppose, I passed through the small, latched door in the hillside, into Mrs Tiggywinkle’s flagged kitchen, filled with the ‘nice, hot, singey smell’ of ironing, busy and reassuring. A few years later came the doors into Narnia, the Secret Garden and Wonderland, Bilbo Baggins’s ‘perfectly round’ green door with its shiny yellow brass knob ‘in the exact middle’, the door into the Yellow Dwarf’s home in the orange tree, and the dark door into Bluebeard’s bloody chamber.
Several years on again – looking now towards the end of school, and the wider world – I remember the thrill of reading about Charles Ryder’s early days at Oxford, and his ‘faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that great city’.
But reading to my own children, the door I’ve been happiest to pass through again is the door into Tom’s Midnight Garden – a door one can only imagine because, unlike most of the others, it is never described.
The plot of Philippa Pearce’s classic novel for children is simple. Tom Long, a boy of about 10, in quarantine for measles, is dispatched to spend the summer holidays with his childless uncle and aunt. They are a dreary couple – Alan Kitson, ponderous, literal-minded, quick-tempered; his wife, Gwen, kindly but cowed, and claustrophobically doting. Because of the danger of infection, Tom is forbidden even to answer the door to the milkman, but instead remains cooped up inside the Kitsons’ poky flat – one of a number of apartments carved awkwardly out of what was once a large Victorian house.
In an attempt to cheer him up, Aunt Gwen cooks enormous meals, swimming in sauces (‘whipped cream and rum butter and real mayonnaise’), which cause Tom to toss and turn in bed, sullen and wakeful. One night, unable to sleep, he counts as the grandfather clock in the hall strikes thirteen. Creeping down to investigate, he opens the back door that normally leads to a strip of paving and some communal dustbins, and finds himself instead in a beautiful, rambling summer garden.
The garden is there, waiting for him as the clock strikes thirteen, every night, and in it he meets a little girl, Hatty, an orphan ward who is, like him, lonely and in need of a friend. Together, night after night, they play in the garden, climbing trees, making bows and arrows, wandering among the cacti and the creepers in the greenhouse, breathing in the warm, stifling air. Occasionally they argue, and when they do it is almost always about which of them is real, and which a ghost. But the arguments blow away like thistledown: Tom and Hatty need one another so badly that they cannot afford to dwell on the oddness of their friendship.
For Tom, the summer holidays march forwards, day by day, in a conventional manner. But in the garden, though it is almost always summer, time dances about. If one night Hatty is a girl of about Tom’s age, the next he finds her a tiny, newly orphaned child, dressed in black, weeping for her parents. And sometimes she is almost grown up. On Tom’s final visit, she is about to be married, and because she no longer needs his friendship, he has become insubstantial, almost invisible to her.
The night before he returns home to his parents, Tom creeps downstairs to find the bolt to the back door rusted and immovable, and the garden gone. I won’t spoil things by revealing the final, bittersweet twist to the tale; but it makes for the most moving ending to any children’s book I know. There is everything here to keep a child of 8 or 9 absorbed. The chapters are not too long – about right for a quarter of an hour’s bedtime reading. Each ends with some conundrum or catch of the breath to draw you into the next; each, in the original 1958 edition, opens with a detailed line-drawing by Susan Einzig, the brilliant children’s illustrator who arrived on one of the last Kindertransport trains to reach Britain before the outbreak of war. And woven through the story – though never outweighing the excitement – is a thread of the kind of sadness children relish, once it begins to dawn on them that life is not always straightforward.
But what amazed me, when I read the book to my own children, was how much it has to offer grown-ups too. I’d been prompted to take it off the shelf by meeting someone who had known the author well, and was able to tell me a bit about the circumstances in which the book was written. Philippa Pearce was the youngest of four children. Her father was a miller and corn merchant whose family had lived for three generations in the Mill House on the upper reaches of the river Cam, near the village of Great Shelford. When, his children grown up, he came to sell the house, Philippa decided to capture her childhood memories of the walled garden where she, and her father and grandfather before her, had played as children.
No amount of research could have enabled a writer to make a garden so completely real for her readers, and Pearce’s love of the place is shot through every detail – from the muslin bags muffling the pears to prevent bruising to the baby frogs who hide under the strawberry leaves; from the shadowy tunnel between the yew trees and the nut stubs to the gooseberry nets from which Tom and Hatty release trapped blackbirds, to the Sensitive Plant that cowers in the greenhouse and shrinks, on stroking, ‘in one droop of nervous dejection’.
Pearce draws on her father’s memories as well as her own. He had told her about how, during the great frost of 1895, he and his friends skated down the Cam. In the book’s most memorable chapter Tom and Hatty skate together one winter’s afternoon, under frozen willows and past icelocked boats, all the way to Ely. As the sun is about to set, they climb 286 steps to the top of the cathedral tower, and look out across the fens. It is their last great adventure. Hatty is nearly 20 by now, and on the point of getting engaged. To her Tom is becoming increasingly tenuous. ‘I wasn’t sure if it were you’, she admits, ‘or a trick of the frostlight.’
Philippa Pearce was nearly 40 when she wrote the book, and hand in hand with her pin-sharp child’s-eye recall goes the kind of wisdom that only comes when a person is able to look back over a good chunk of life. She understands, for example, about providence – how what present themselves, at first, as crushing disasters often bring unlooked-for blessings; how the best things come unbidden. The first chapter of the book is heavy with Tom’s disappointment that his summer holidays have been ruined. He had planned to build a tree house with his brother, Peter, in the little apple tree in their ribbon of suburban garden. He does build a tree house, a grander one than could ever have fitted in an apple tree, with Hatty, in the branches of a great yew tree called the Steps of St Paul’s. I was reminded, rereading the book, of a passage towards the end of George Mackay Brown’s autobiography, For the Islands I Sing. There are, Brown says, two wills at work in every life – the personal will and ‘another will that we have no control over . . . It “prevents us everywhere”, as Eliot says, but it also offers opportunities beyond anything we could have hoped for.’ Philippa Pearce would have liked that, I think.
I was reminded, too, of a striking detail in the closing chapter of Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Before he died, Fermor chose as the reading at his funeral a passage from the Apocryphal Book of St James describing ‘a moment when time stands still’. That, in a way, is what Philippa Pearce does here – she stops time in its tracks by trapping her memories between the pages of a book, like pressed flowers. But she does more than this. Time, in Tom’s Midnight Garden, does not stand still, but bends and twists so that past and present embrace and comfort one another. The story revolves around two children, Hatty and Tom; but between Hatty’s late Victorian childhood and Tom’s in the 1950s lay two world wars. I wonder whether there was, at the back of Philippa Pearce’s mind as she wrote, a desire to build a kind of rainbow bridge across those decades of devastation?
So how does one categorize this small masterpiece? It’s not quite memoir and not entirely make-believe. It’s almost as if, in writing it, Philippa Pearce was offering her own mysterious postscript to those beautiful verses from Ecclesiastes. There’s a time to be born, and aime to die; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to keep, and a time to cast away. And there’s a time, perhaps, when time itself curls about, accommodates, suspends its own iron laws for a while, to help us on our way.
© Maggie Fergusson 2013, Slightly Foxed Issue 40
Illustration by Susan Einzig